MAY 23, 2022
New Lightfoot housing mega-ordinance pitches citywide whack at housing segregation, aldermanic prerogative
From left: Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Department of Housing Comm. Marisa Novara and Bickerdike Development CEO Joy Aruguete speak at the grand opening of the Lucy Gonzalez Parsons apartments in Logan Square on Friday. [Twitter/Chicago Department of Housing]
Three years after promising to overhaul the city’s housing policies to attack Chicago’s bone-deep legacy of racial segregation, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is poised this week to roll out her most consequential housing plan to date. The “Connecting Communities Ordinance” cobbles together nearly a dozen new rules and policies aimed at supercharging construction near transit stations and building safer environments for pedestrians in busy corridors.
It would also forbid neighborhoods from banning new two-flats or three-flats in wealthy, transit rich parts of the city, and it would force affordable housing proposals into the City Council spotlight — two changes that would meaningfully erode, but not eliminate, aldermen’s power to call the shots on what gets built in their own wards.
Loosening local restrictions on new affordable housing and curbing the unwritten rule of “aldermanic prerogative” over ward-by-ward zoning decisions were both cornerstones of Lightfoot’s 2019 campaign, but they have since seen little movement.
The 10-page housing policy plank of Lightfoot’s campaign platform cited a 2018 study by the Chicago-area Fair Housing Alliance and the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law that drew a line between aldermanic prerogative and a near-total lack of subsidized housing in wealthy outer-lying corners of Chicago.
“Some aldermen continue to use their prerogative to keep developers from building housing that is affordable for low- and moderate-income Chicagoans,” Lightfoot’s campaign platform reads. “The aldermanic prerogative has and continues to exacerbate Chicago’s unenviable status as one of the most segregated cities in the country.”
Lightfoot signed an executive order on her first day in office to end “aldermanic prerogative” over administrative decisions like licensing and permitting. Her administration spearheaded a pilot program in 2020 to allow the construction of new coach houses and basement apartments in some parts of the city, and in 2021 officials published an “Equitable Transit-Oriented Development” policy roadmap to expand dense, transit-adjacent housing construction beyond the city’s hottest neighborhoods.
However, despite repeated promises that a blow against aldermanic prerogative in zoning decisions is coming — including as recently as last week in a statement to the Tribune — aldermen still harbor near-total veto power over new developments in their wards, a privilege even Lightfoot’s closest City Council allies have acknowledged they won’t give up willingly.
However, policymakers have all the while been working behind the scenes on an ordinance that would “take the principles” of the Equitable Transit-Oriented Development plan and “put them into the zoning code,” Chicago Department of Housing policy director Daniel Hertz told The Daily Line on Friday.
City leaders are already trying to channel resources into desegregation through the Invest South/West program, which is funneling public and private dollars into a dozen South and West Side commercial corridors, and through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which will bankroll 24 new affordable housing developments around the city this year thanks to a gush of federal cash.
- City unveils second round of Invest South/West plans totaling $200M in mixed-use developments
- Backed by federal cash, Lightfoot rolls out city tax credits for 24 affordable housing proposals
But money isn’t enough on its own to integrate neighborhoods, according to Dan Lurie, Lightfoot’s chief of policy.
“Some of it is market-driven, and some of it is regulatory barriers,” Lurie said. “So the key here is to take those regulatory barriers and reduce or eliminate them as much as possible so that we can allow for this kind of development near transit on the South and West Side.”
The “Connecting Communities Ordinance” looks to topple those barriers through three main goals for the hundreds of miles of Chicago streets that are within walking distance from a transit station: incentivizing new construction, pedestrianizing streetscapes and curbing local restrictions on new housing.
Transit-oriented development expansion
Lightfoot’s ordinance proposes by far the largest-ever expansion of the city’s Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) rules, which are designed to foster denser construction near public transit.
Conjured by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration in 2013, the TOD policy offered height boosts and slashed parking requirements for new developments proposed in business or commercial zoning districts within a quarter-mile — or two standard city blocks — of CTA or Metra train stations. City leaders widened the policy in 2015 to cover pedestrian-designated streets within a half-mile of train stations, and again in 2019 to include the city’s busiest bus lines.
Now, Lightfoot’s administration wants to nearly double the footprint of the TOD policy by extending its reach to within a half-mile of all train stations and “high-frequency” bus routes, which are defined as lines where buses are scheduled to stop at least every 15 minutes around midday.
Hertz called four blocks “a pretty common standard” for similar policies around the country and noted that about 90 percent of the city’s designated pedestrian streets are confined to the city’s North or Northwest Side.
“The goal is to create more jobs and allow for more homes near transit by extending those incentives and removing the regulatory barriers in more places,” Hertz said.
However, the new rules would also restrict the existing TOD density bonus so that it can’t benefit developers who pay an “in-lieu-of” fee to buy out of their affordable unit inclusion burden set by the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance.
Existing TOD zones waive the city’s typical requirement for developers to create at least one parking space for every new home, meaning developers have been allowed since 2013 to build large-scale apartment buildings without any on-site parking as long as the site is within two blocks of a transit station.
But the latest proposal would set the city’s first-ever cap on parking near transit. New developments within a half-mile of a train station or busy bus line would only be allowed to build one parking spot for every two new housing units.
“Right now, you can have buildings next to transit that are not really transit-oriented,” Hertz said. “This would say that if you’re going to be building a TOD, then building all of the parking and adding more cars to the streets is really not achieving the goal of the policy.”
He added that “larger developments” would be required to “submit a transportation management plan” that would be approved by the city’s Department of Transportation to “help manage transportation needs generated” by the development.
And the crackdown on new parking wouldn’t end there.
The ordinance would for the first time count interior parking garages toward buildings’ floor-area ratio calculations, posing a direct trade-off between the construction of parking spaces and new homes. And it would land a blow against car-centric street design by requiring any new development in a TOD zone to score approval from the Department of Planning and Development’s zoning administrator before adding a new driveway curb cut.
“Building parking costs money,” Hertz said. “That reduces the amount of homes you can build, it reduces the amount of resources you can have for other things…so removing parking as a mandate is really key.”
Aldermen often face pushback over new development proposals from neighbors who decry a need for more parking, meaning the crackdowns on space for cars will likely be controversial. But Lurie stressed that the new rules will only apply within a half-mile of transit, not “every neighborhood in the city.”
“These are really important, critical pieces of real estate and one of the most vital assets the city has, which are its high-priority bus lanes and rail,” Lurie said. “We want to make sure that we are preserving affordability…near transit, and that at the same time we’re getting at the mayor’s climate goals.”
Curtailing restrictions on new housing
Perhaps the most significant change prescribed by the “Connecting Communities Ordinance” is an outright reversal of single-family-only zoning within a half-mile of transit in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. In other words, it would “end the ban on three-flats in low-affordability communities near transit,” Hertz said.
“This is basically to say, three-flats are a classic vernacular Chicago housing type that fits into many neighborhoods across the city,” he said. “And apartments and condos in three-flats are going to be more moderately priced than single-family homes in the same areas.”
Researchers have documented the loss of tens of thousands of small apartment buildings on the city’s North Side that have been de-converted or demolished and replaced with lavish single-family homes, thinning the city’s precious supply of naturally occurring affordable housing.
Neighborhood groups, including affordable housing organizers, often deride newly built condo buildings as unaffordable or symbols of gentrification. But city housing officials argue that many more Chicagoans can afford to buy a brand-new condo, whose construction is now illegal in most of the city, than can afford to snatch up a new detached house as soon as it’s built.
“The perspective is, we shouldn’t be using our zoning code to require only the most expensive housing be built — especially near transit, which is exactly where you want more people to be able to live,” Hertz said.
The ordinance would also extend the “anti-deconversion” rules that took hold in Pilsen and the 606 area last year so that they apply to all homes in multifamily zoning districts within a half-mile of transit in pricey neighborhoods. Housing officials have boasted of a near-halt in gut-jobs in the two pilot areas where the rules went into effect last year.
The bans on deconversions and single-family zoning restrictions would only apply in wealthy neighborhoods, or “inclusionary housing areas” as defined by the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance. Neighborhoods meet that definition if fewer than 35 percent of their existing homes are “either legally restricted affordable housing or naturally occurring affordable housing,” per city ordinance.
Allowing two- and three-flats to be built by right across vast swaths of the North Side will be sure to draw pushback from aldermen, who are accustomed to being asked permission when developers want to build apartments or condos in residential areas.
The Lightfoot administration’s 2020 push to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) to be built citywide faced a wall of opposition from aldermen including Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11) and Ald. Michele Smith (43), who blasted the policy as a “free up-zoning” for developers. Two years later, proponents of the policy have called it a success, but aldermen remain divided.
- Coach house ordinance stalls as aldermen pile on fears of a ‘free up-zoning’
- ADU pilot's early success tempered by financing barriers, red tape, housing officials say as expansion hangs in balance
Forcing votes on affordable proposals
Lightfoot’s ordinance would also take a swing at aldermanic prerogative by reviving a 2018 proposal from then-Ald. Ameya Pawar (47) that was designed to prevent affordable housing proposals from being filed away and neglected.
Pawar’s “Affordable Housing Equity Ordinance” (O2018-6119) would have given the council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards 90 days to “take action” on any affordable housing proposed in a neighborhood that lacks affordable homes. The ordinance, which Pawar described as an effort to “to get rid of aldermanic prerogative when it comes affordable housing,” scored 26 aldermanic co-sponsors but never made it out of committee.
Lightfoot’s proposal would open a longer window, giving the zoning committee up to eight months from the plan’s filing before aldermen must take a vote on it. But the voting requirement would be triggered for any new residential development proposed in an “inclusionary housing area” that is either taking advantage of affordable housing subsidies or planning to offer affordable rents to at least 20 percent of units on site.
Six months after they file their zoning applications, developers who meet the criteria may demand a vote by the zoning committee, after which the body will have 60 days to comply.
“Obviously, the council still has the opportunity to vote it down,” Hertz said. “But there needs to be a vote, in public, that people can show up to and testify before the council makes a decision.”
A final provision of the ordinance would tweak the language around RT “residential two-flat” zoning districts so that they incentivize first-floor units at grade level to boost accessibility for wheelchair-users.
Though their plan will likely face opposition, officials said they feel optimistic about getting most of the City Council on board with its ideas. Top policy officials in Lightfoot’s administration have already “spent over a year working with aldermen, their staff [and] community members” to vet and workshop the policies envisioned by the ordinance, Lurie said.
“We have collaborated with many, many stakeholders to grasp this and to make sure that we’re incorporating feedback and addressing concerns,” Lurie said. “We’ve heard from a lot of aldermen who gave us really helpful feedback about how this can work practically [and] how it can encourage the shared goals that they and the mayor have around making development near transit more equitable.”
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